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America couldn’t make a proper cup of tea to save its life

Judges sample cups of milk tea during the International Kamcha Competition in Hong Kong, Aug. 15, 2014. Kamcha is the Romanized Cantonese name of Hong Kong-style milk tea. (EPA/Jerome Favre)

Our colleague at Wonkblog, Roberto Ferdman, presents apparently compelling statistical evidence that America is slowly becoming a nation of tea drinkers.

The U.S. market for tea has more than quadrupled during the past twenty-plus years—from just under $2 billion in 1990 to just over $10 billion last year—according to the U.S. Tea Association. Demand for the herbal beverage has now been growing at a healthy clip for decades. By weight, Americans now drink almost 20 percent more of the herbal beverage than they did back in 2000, according to market research firm Euromonitor.

With all due respect to Ferdman, this data is hopelessly unreliable. Comparative political scientists often talk about the problem of ‘conceptual stretching’ (this article by Collier and Mahon provides one classic discussion). This occurs when someone tries to apply a concept developed in one context to cover something very different in another, stretching the concept so far that it becomes essentially meaningless. Terms like ‘parliament,’ ‘political party,’ and ‘democracy,’ might seem pretty straightforward, but can sometimes be applied carelessly, so that they cover very different phenomena. If someone did a worldwide study on ‘political parties,’ which didn’t distinguish between political parties in democratic regimes and the very different kinds of parties that one sometimes gets in authoritarian regimes, it probably wouldn’t be a very good study. It would have stretched the concept of ‘political party’ so far that it didn’t mean very much any more.

Something very similar is true of the word tea. When people from honest tea drinking countries like Britain or Ireland talk about tea, it is a tightly and well defined concept. A proper cup of tea is made with boiling water added to loose tea or tea bags. Milk and sugar are optional, but often are preferred (of course, India and China have their own, perfectly valid traditions, too, not to mention the Japanese tea ceremony, but I don’t want to be complicating things).

The problem is, of course, that Americans use the concept of tea in a manner that is not only loose, but verging on the blasphemous. I can’t even begin to catalogue the horrid variety of potations that have been presented to me as ‘tea’ during my years living in the United States. They range from the insipid and corn syrup laden concoction that is labeled ‘iced tea’ in convenience store refrigerators, to the vile infusion that I was once presented with at an acquaintance’s house, consisting of a dubious teabag fished from the back of the press, briefly swirled in a cup of lukewarm water poured straight from the tap. I’ve always suspected that the Sons of Liberty poured the tea into Boston Harbor because they thought the mixture would taste good.

In short, the purported surge in demand for the “herbal beverage” is a statistical artifact. Next to none of the “herbal beverage” consumed in America is anything that an ordinary person might recognize as tea. What it is, I cannot speculate (HP Lovecraft might do a better job). But actual tea consumption in the United States is, at best, a rounding error in the overall statistics.

This is, of course, remediable. The English writer Neil Gaiman, who has written an entire short novel about a man’s quest to bring back milk for his morning cuppa, provides excellent and straightforward instructions here about how to make proper tea. I’m from Ireland, and I grew up with Barry’s Tea. This fine brand which I used to successfully woo my American wife (who is now a happy convert) is now readily available on the Internets. Perhaps, one day we will be able to say that America is indeed becoming a nation of tea drinkers. For the moment though, that has to remain a distant aspiration.

Henry Farrell is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He works on a variety of topics, including trust, the politics of the Internet and international and comparative political economy.



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